The Brooklyn Nets appeared as if they were dead to rights following road losses in Games 1 and 2 against the Miami Heat. They lost by an average of more than 16 points per contest, which hinted that Miami would keep its foot on the gas pedal en route to a sweep.
Instead, key bench performances from Andray Blatche, Mirza Teletovic and Andrei Kirilenko cut the Heat’s series lead to a 2-1 margin. Now, veteran forward Paul Pierce is looking to inspire his teammates and take on the most difficult defensive assignment possible.
“I went to J-Kidd [for] Game 2 and said I want that assignment,” Pierce said of defending LeBron James, according to ESPN’s Ohm Youngmisuk. “I think I’ve guarded him more than anybody in this gym. I know his tendencies a little bit more and I just try to step up in that role and try to lead that way.”
Defending James is an arduous task even for the NBA’s most skilled on-ball defenders. The 36-year-old Pierce, however, has had success against the four-time MVP in this series.
Youngmisuk wrote the following of that matchup:
In Game 2, Pierce guarded James on 42 percent of his plays and limited him to eight points in that second Heat win. The average distance of James’ field-goal attempts with Pierce on him was 18.6 feet compared to 9.6 against all other Nets defenders. James attempted one drive on Pierce during that win, according to ESPN Stats and Information.
Miami’s superstar is shooting 56.3 percent from the field in the series. His ability to attack the rim is his biggest strength, but The Truth has been able to stifle it in a limited sample size. If Pierce is up to the challenge, head coach Jason Kidd should certainly consider that defensive matchup moving forward.
“What I try to do in this locker and with my teammates is just try give them belief -- that we can beat this team. They’re not unbeatable,” Pierce said, per Youngmisuk.
The Heat are certainly not unbeatable. Just look at Game 3 for evidence of that. Taking four games from their disciplined roster in a seven-game series, however, hasn’t happened since 2011—when Dirk Nowitzki’s Dallas Mavericks dispatched them in the NBA Finals, 4-2.
James, however, isn't concerned. He said the following as a rebuttal to Pierce’s strong-willed statements, per Youngmisuk:
Words don’t win the game, you’ve got to go out and play. Why should there be a fear factor, it’s just basketball. We’re not trying to win a war here, it’s just basketball. We’re all grown men, who cares about who is fearing who. We’ve never been a team that talks, we don’t get into that. We’ve never been a bulletin board team. We just want to play the right way and give ourselves a chance to win.
Brooklyn won all four of their regular-season matchups against the Heat in 2013-14, but the postseason is writing a different narrative. Even if Pierce is able to defend and contain LeBron in the immediate future, guys like Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and Ray Allen are ready to make an impact.
As James said: “Words don’t win the game.” He’s absolutely right.
With that said, there’s nothing wrong with Pierce being confident and looking to light a fire under his teammates. At the very least, he already has backing from Blatche in terms of guarding James.
“[Pierce] is doing a great job. He’s forcing him to take shots, LeBron is trying to back him down, Paul is a strong guy himself, so he is just playing cat and mouse with him,” he said, according to Youngmisuk.
Pierce is no longer the offensive juggernaut he was for years with the Boston Celtics. As a result, focusing the bulk of his energy on the defensive end of the court may simply be solid strategy for coach Kidd.
Nobody is capable of stopping LBJ, but it can’t hurt to let the savvy veteran try.